Into the wild…or maybe not?

A post by Alexandra Sexton

Here’s a question for you: which of the images above depict nature?  The Yosemite National Park?  Nope.  The rolling peaks of the Lake District?  Afraid not.  The snowy depths of Lapland?  Wrong again.  Surely, the Amazonian rainforest must do??  Can you sense a trend here?

Before you exit this page in an exasperated fury, allow me to explain.  The answers might seem strange, especially when traditional conservationist attitudes (and consequently our own modern-day views) have generally come to conceptualise “true nature” as something that contains all of the elements in the pictures: jagged mountains, lush forests and abundant biodiversity.  However, as well as developing an idea of what should be included in our understanding of “nature”, an important category has also been excluded from it – humans.  But hang on, what about the images above? They seem pretty free of Homo sapien forms, so why don’t they qualify as “true nature”?  Well, that’s because none of these landscapes, or in fact any landscape in the world, have remained completely untouched by human impacts in some way.  Every landscape has been and continues to be subject to our influence.  Whether it’s through the management of protected areas, such as Yosemite and the Lake District, or through the interaction between indigenous peoples and their environments, like in the Amazon or Lapland (Laponia), most of what you see in today’s supposed “wildernesses” are the products of man’s long relationship with his environment.  Even if humans have never been present in some regions, our impacts upon global systems like the atmosphere have huge effects that are not restricted to inhabited areas or national boundaries.  The scale of our impact obviously varies from place to place, but ever since we began to adapt our environments to suit our needs we started influencing its evolution and played a significant part in producing the landscapes we know and recognise today.

‘Does this really matter?’ is probably your next question. Does it really matter if we follow past conservationist ideas of “nature” as being a non-human space, something that is “out there”, “removed from us”, and can “take care of itself”?  Well it matters when people – usually minority, indigenous peoples – are exploited or even forcibly removed from their homelands because conservation organisations, national governments and the like wish to create the illusion of a “pristine” and “untouched” landscape.  Never mind their historical, social and cultural links to the land; never mind that their traditional practices have often had very little impact on their environments; and never mind that removing them from their territories generally leads to their social, political and economic marginalisation, because it is all worth it as long as the landscape looks pretty, right?  I know, this seems a ridiculous scenario, yet it has reoccurred with an alarming frequency in recent years and often in cases where attempts at addressing sustainable methods have not even taken place.

One such example occurred last year in north-western Thailand, in an area which has recently become the Kaeng Krachan National Park.  After receiving lots of funding from the World Bank to protect the country’s biodiversity, the Thai government set about their “protecting” by evicting the Karen people from the park and destroying their villages.  Justifying their actions, park officials accused the Karens of engaging in environmentally-destructive practices and also claimed they were opium cultivators and communist sympathisers.  If you look at the park’s website (www.westernforest.org/en/areas/kaeng_krachan.htm) it is clear that the emphasis is very much on promoting and preserving the forests as “untouched wildernesses”; the Karens it seems are clearly not allowed to “touch”, yet interestingly hordes of tourists are more than welcome to come and “touch” the landscapes with their money, technology and footprints (both carbon and physical).

There are too many of these cases which have happened during recent decades and will continue happening as long as humans are seen as separate from “nature”.  Fortunately there are movements currently being made in the worlds of academia and conservation that are trying to address this issue.  Recently a talk entitled “Human Nature?” was given at Canning House, London, by a collection of lecturers, conservation experts and ex-ambassadors on the relationship between the Amazon and its indigenous peoples.  One of the speakers made the interesting comment that many areas of the rainforest were much sparser before man’s arrival.  This was because the resident large herbivores trampled, chomped and generally bashed away any vegetation that came their way.  Once man arrived with their advanced technological ballistic device (aka the spear) these species became extinct and so the flora was able to re-populate the area again.  Now in no way am I advocating species extinction; what I’m trying to do is look at things from a different angle – should the large herbivores be viewed as past “contaminants” of the land, and could their removal by humans therefore be seen as an act of “nature conservation”, just as the removal of humans from a landscape by conservation organisations is viewed as such today?  I guess it depends which “nature” it is you’re rooting for.

The speaker also mentioned that certain indigenous communities have cultivated over a hundred plant species within their lands for the purposes of cooking, medicine and attracting prey.  Many fauna have evolved with these plants and, similar to the peoples, are now dependent on their existence.  Not only does this highlight a very rarely talked about example of indigenous peoples “giving back” to the environment, but again it shows how you cannot separate man’s impact from the “natural” systems of our current landscapes.  Does the fact that humans have planted and maintained this flora make the plant species, or indeed the animals which engage with them, any less “natural”?  The same could be said for our own gardens – are the birds or bees somehow tainted by our “human-ness” when they land on a plant we have lovingly pruned into existence?

I am not attempting to pretend that the issues I’ve described and the questions I’ve asked are as simplistic as perhaps has been portrayed – obviously every case comes with its own set of unique problems.  But what I am arguing is the need for us to break away from viewing man solely as the “destroyer” or “contaminant” of the environment, otherwise this fascination with “restoring” landscapes back to their pre-human state will continue at the immeasurable expense of many indigenous peoples.  Yes we as a species do impact the environment, yes we do have so much more to learn about sustainable practices, and yes we can be the biggest bully in the world’s ecosystem playground.  But we, indigenous minorities and majority populations inclusive, can also be the “cultivator” and like it or not the Earth we know today – from the “wildernesses” of Yosemite to our own backyards – has been shaped by our “cultivation” in some way or another, making us an intrinsic and arguably integral part of “nature”.

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